Ron Kikel is a bird man. And an ant man. And a wasp guy. Those aren’t his superhero aliases – they’re descriptions of just some of his work as a conservation education specialist for the Mt. Hood National Forest.
But, Kikel is probably best known as the “owl guy.”
Jack is a 12-year old Great Horned Owl. He’s also blind in one eye. Jack was rescued after tangling with some barbed wire, and rehabilitated several years ago by the Rowena Wildlife Clinic, which partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to care for disabled raptors and trains them for use in educational settings.
Kikel met Jack in 2010, at a Wild for Wildlife event. Jack was working with his caretaker, Dr. Jean Cypher, at the time to provide conservation education to students. Kikel was doing similar work for the Forest Service, using a taxidermied owl as a prop.
Their encounter inspired Kikel to pursue training to become a raptor handler, himself.
“With taxidermy, you are mostly talking about anatomy. Kids ask a lot of questions about where the bird came from, sometimes it gets a little off-track,” he said. “Show them the live owl, and you have their attention for at 30 minutes, at least.”
These days, Jack and Kikel work as a team to provide conservation education at schools and public events located near Kikel’s “home base” at the Hood River Ranger District in Parkdale, Oregon.
Sometimes, Jack even joins him at the ranger station’s front desk, where Kikel provides visitor information and the owl has his own perch.
“He’s a star. Everyone likes him a lot,” Kikel said. “He’s probably the best coworker I’ve ever had.”
Kikel isn’t just a bird man, he’s also a bug guy. He’s known in the Forest Service’s regional conservation education community for his nature photos, many of which feature dramatic close-ups of the nature he finds around him.
In his prior career, photography was Kikel’s job. He served 20 years in the Air Force, 12 of them as a photographer working in medical research and forensics.
“I worked at Wilford Hall, a big research hospital. So we had an infectious disease lab, dermatology, poison control. They’d want (close-up) photos for teaching, so I took some courses in it,” he said.
Today, skills he once used to photograph scorpions and fire ants for environmental health brochures given to deploying service members are the same ones he now uses to capture breathtaking images of Pacific Northwest beetles, birds and butterflies.
To avoid disturbing his subjects, Kikel often works with minimal gear, often taking photos with just an old Nikon D-50 camera, a manual macro lens, and sometimes a flash.
Despite the seeming spontaneity of this approach, he said macro photography is actually a very slow-going endeavor.
“It takes a lot of patience, because your subjects aren’t going to sit still,” he said.
These days, Kikel said, he considers his photography to be not his job, but his passion.
But he still finds lots of inspiration at the office.
“Mt. Hood is right outside my window… I can watch it change with the seasons,” he said.
While Kikel credits patience for his most successful shots, he said sometimes a little luck is also required.
He was experimenting with a new camera when he caught a striking image of a Cooper Hawk perched just outside his bedroom.
“I was shooting (pictures of) the birds at my feeder, through the window, and suddenly they all bolted,” he said. “Then I looked up, and said ‘well, that’s why… I’d better get this dude’s picture before he takes off!’”
Whether he’s providing customer service at the ranger station, giving wildlife education talks, or providing tours of Cloud Cap Inn, it’s the interpretive element that drew him to his job.
Seeing the world through a different lens, and being able to share it, is what draws him to photography, as well.
“It’s really an incredible world, when you see it close up,” he said.
Source information: Catherine “Cat” Caruso is the strategic communication lead for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement, and edits the “Your Northwest Forests” blog. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.